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Astrodome Debate

Remember the Alamo and the Astrodome: It's insanity to tear down Houston's iconic landmark

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Astrodome eight wonder of the world program
The Astrodome in its heyday. My-Retrospace.blogspot.com
The Alamo, mission, San Antonio, November 2012
There was once talk of tearing down The Alamo. Photo by Paco Montoya
Reliant Park, Reliant Stadium, Astrodome, aerial
Aerial view of Reliant Stadium and the Astrodome: Which looks more interesting? Photo by Amble/Wikipedia
Astrodome, construction, no date
The Astrodome under construction in the early 1960s. Rodeo Houston/Facebook
Astrodome eight wonder of the world program
The Alamo, mission, San Antonio, November 2012
Reliant Park, Reliant Stadium, Astrodome, aerial
Astrodome, construction, no date
News_Mike Vance_head shot_column mug

As a second generation Houstonian and avid sports fan who is roughly the same age as Major League Baseball and pro football in this city, I am thrilled that my hometown will be hosting the Super Bowl again. Our city is a fantastic, often under-appreciated place, and the chance to again shine on an international stage is always welcome.

For many of those same reasons, for hometown pride, I'm also sick to death of hearing residents and visitors alike shake their heads and resignedly say something like, "Houston doesn't care about its past. They tear everything down." It's not entirely true, and more than that, a few hundred thousand of your fellow Houstonians are really tired of it, too. Yet today, people are asking the nauseatingly relevant question if our getting the Super Bowl will speed demolition of the Astrodome.

 The fact that we are even having a discussion about tearing down the Dome is insane. There is no other way to put it.  

The fact that we are even having a discussion about tearing down the Dome is insane. There is no other way to put it. The Astrodome is an engineering landmark unlike anything else in the world. It was the first domed stadium on the planet. The first of the giant, lighted scoreboards. The first Astroturf. It incorporated design elements that had never been employed on anything even approaching such a grand scale. In short, it made Houston the envy of every other city on Earth.

This is a hugely important structure from an architectural standpoint, as well as something that all longtime Houstonians feel strongly about on an emotional level. The Astrodome is our city's icon. It's the first thing that millions of people around the globe think of when they hear the name Houston. The Astrodome. The Space Age. The modernity of the mid-20th century. It is our Eiffel Tower. Our Golden Gate. Our Empire State Building. And you can bet your cowboy boots that nobody's talking about tearing those other icons down so some private business can make a few thousand more bucks on parking.

San Antonio example

Does nobody in power understand or care that very often this short-sightedness when it comes to preserving our own history makes us a laughing stock to other cities around the country? More than that, does nobody in power have a clue that failure to look at the big picture continues to cost our city money? And make no mistake, the people driving the "Tear Down the Dome" idea are after more money in their pockets.

Does anyone think it's an accident that San Antonio is the top tourist destination in Texas? Or that New Orleans, Chicago and Philadelphia are among the top tourist cities nationally? The people going to those places and spending millions of dollars are not going to there to visit parking lots. They go there because those places have attractions. They have character. And they all have very strict preservation policies and built environment worth seeing. Though they might not be using the term when they go there, visitors are engaging in architectural tourism. They are spending money to see old buildings.

 Here's a little history lesson. At one time, San Antonians came quite close to losing that structure.  

The Alamo sits right in the heart of San Antonio's business district, a place where parking is expensive and darn hard to find, but the city leaders there are not talking about tearing down the Alamo? In fact, even the wildly pro-business Texas legislature just passed provisions to protect an expanded area around the Alamo.

Here's a little history lesson. At one time, San Antonians came quite close to losing that structure. The complex was used as a storage depot by the U.S. Army. A department store was built that incorporated the old convent, known today as the Long Barracks, and the place where a large percentage of Alamo defenders died. Even one of the DRT guardians of the place tried to tear down the convent wing, and succeeded in having the top story removed.

So can you imagine what people would be saying today about San Antonio if the Alamo had been torn down? If another high rise hotel sat on the spot? In fact, without the city's top tourist attraction, why have all those hotels in the first place.

Now the Astrodome is not ever going to be Houston's top tourist attraction again like it once was, but it can certainly be turned into something of value. Something that brings visitors to Reliant Park, a place that is publicly owned, I will add, not something that is there solely to make money for the other tenants.

Political courage

There are many good ideas out there for a viable and productive use for the Dome. What does not seem to be out there is a political leader with the courage to step up. We don't seem to have a Roy Hofheinz or any of the other many leaders who were there in the early 1960s to imagine and build the most awe-inspiring, talked about building in the country. Where is that leadership today?

Surely there is one county or city or state official out there who can apply a little imagination and step up to the plate. 

Surely there is one county or city or state official out there who can apply a little imagination and step up to the plate. Someone willing to carry the water on saving the Astrodome. With survey after survey showing that a majority of Houston and Harris County residents prefer a plan to save the Dome, whomever that official is can count on a strong base of support for the rest of his or her career.

The bottom line is this: Government is not a business. Likening a huge government budget to balancing your household checking account is absurd. Government exists to serve the collective needs of the citizens. That's why the people who work for government are known as public servants, and they do things that we cannot do as individuals. They build our roads, they save us from fires, and yes, they make our county and our city a better place to live.

Having an Astrodome that exists in some form to serve as an attraction in its own right, to bring in tourists interested in architecture and sports history, is something that without a doubt makes Houston and Harris County better. Putting a few more cars into the queue after a Texans game does not. What we desperately need right now is not elected officials so scared of voters that that they won't spend a dime to do something that benefits us long term. What we need are some leaders who will make this their issue, save our local icon and earn themselves a boatload of undying gratitude.

Mike Vance is executive director of Houston Arts and Media, a non-profit which produces educational media about Texas and Houston history. He has written extensively about our city's past.

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